Bibliophiles are ablaze with the news that a “lost library” of rare books and manuscripts is due to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in June 2021.
While there are many first editions on offer, without doubt, the two important items are a handwritten manuscript of Emily Brontë’s poems, with pencil corrections by her sister Charlotte, and a copy of a well-loved family book that has also been annotated by their father, Patrick.
Patrick Brontë was originally a County Down man who won a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he obtained a BA. He was ordained in 1806 and met his wife, Maria Branwell, in 1812.
He took up the post of curate in Haworth, Yorkshire, in 1820. Together, he and Maria had six children. After Maria tragically succumbed to uterine cancer in 1821, her sister, Elizabeth, came to take care of the children.
The two eldest children, Maria and Elizabeth, did not make it past their 11th and 10th birthdays respectively, both suffering from tuberculosis. Charlotte was the next eldest, and she went on to become the author of Jane Eyre and three other novels, as well as writing poetry. The next youngest sibling was Patrick, often referred to as Patrick Branwell or Branwell Brontë to distinguish him from his father. He was a painter, writer, and casual worker who sadly became addicted to alcohol and laudanum.
The fifth child was Emily Brontë, a poet and the author of Wuthering Heights. Anne was the youngest, another poet and novelist. She wrote the largely autobiographical Agnes Grey as well as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
While the three women are famous today, in Victorian England, it was frowned upon for women to write. As such, they published their works under male pseudonyms: Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell, and Anne was Acton Bell.
The Honresfield Library
The remarkable collection about to go to auction at Sotheby’s was assembled by two Victorian entrepreneurs who lived in Yorkshire. William and Alfred Law were unmarried brothers who lived at Honresfield House in Rochdale. They built their home in 1879, close to the mills and factories that had generated their wealth.
At the time, it was common for self-made men like the Law brothers to display their prosperity in the form of grand houses and valuable possessions. But while other rich industrialists took up book collecting as a means of achieving social status, William and Alfred were sophisticated collectors, choosing their acquisitions carefully. Having grown up less than 20 miles from Haworth in the 1830s, the works of the Brontës resonated deeply with these two Yorkshiremen.
After both the brothers had passed on, the collection went to their nephew, Sir Alfred Law, in 1913. At this time, many families faced estate taxes as heirs lost their lives in the trenches or from war wounds. Consequently, many libraries were sold off to release funds. But since Sir Alfred remained financially secure, the library remained intact.
Like his uncles, Sir Alfred never married. When he passed on in November 1939, the library disappeared from view.
According to Dr. Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s English Literature and Historical Manuscripts Specialist, many assumed that the library had been lost. Dr. Heaton added: “to now play a role in bringing it to a wider audience is a true career highlight.”
The jewels of the collection
While owning first editions is a thrill for any collector, what is even more exciting is to possess what comes before — the handwritten drafts. As such, the sale of an original, handwritten manuscript of Emily Brontë’s poems including corrections by her sister, Charlotte, will create a lot of interest. It is estimated that such a treasure will fetch somewhere between £800,000 and £1.2 million.
A copy of Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds published in 1816 proved to be an inspiration to all the Brontë children. They would make copies of the engravings, and it was even referenced in Jane Eyre. In Charlotte’s novel from 1847, a copy of Bewick’s book is thrown at Jane by John Reed. But Jane takes this act of violence and turns it into one of quiet triumph by immersing herself in the book as a means to escape the unpleasant household around her.
What makes this particular copy so special are Patrick Brontë’s annotations on the pages based on his personal observations. One entry relating to a golden eagle reads: “I saw, in Leeds, a stuffed specimen of this bird; it was considerably larger than a goose, as its neck was as thick as a man’s arm.”
He also put in light-hearted culinary statements such as “All kinds of pigeons are good eating.” This volume is expected to go for between £30,000 and £50,000.
While these two books are exceptional, there are also other Brontë items that collectors will be eager to snap up. There are presentation copies of his children’s books that Patrick gifted to a family friend, including first editions of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey. There are also letters from members of the family to friends and publishers.
Not just the Brontës
Without a doubt, these precious items from the Brontës are going to be the main attraction of the auction. But as well as these pieces of Yorkshire history, the Honresfield Library contains other truly exceptional items.
Collectors will be thrilled to find an extensive collection of Sir Walter Scott’s writings on offer, including the original manuscript for his most famous work, Rob Roy. The purchaser of this item will become the owner of one of only a small handful of manuscripts of a great 19th-century novel in existence.
Within the collection is also what Sotheby’s are describing as “the most important manuscript by Robert Burns…to exist in private hands — a unique insight into the mind of the great poet. The so-called First Commonplace Book is a handwritten compilation that Burns made of his own lyrics with accompanying notes and introductions.”
In addition, collectors will have the chance to view and bid on first editions of Jane Austen’s novels Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice; a copy of Don Quixote printed in 1620; an annotated copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems; and various works from Homer, Ovid, the Grimm Brothers, Charles Dickens, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Ann Radcliffe.
Previous sales at Sotheby’s relating to the Brontës and Burns
This is not the first time that Sotheby’s has offered private collectors a chance to bid on unique items relating to the Brontës or Burns.
In December 2011, Charlotte Brontë’s “Little Book” went on sale at Sotheby’s in London. No larger than a matchbox, this book was written by a teenage Charlotte, and it contains three short stories across 20 pages.
Andrew McCarthy, director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, said it was “unquestionably the most significant Brontë manuscript to come to light in decades.” Sadly, the Museum was outbid on this item, which achieved a record price for any Brontë manuscript sold at auction.
Undeterred, the Museum started a fundraiser, raising £85,000 from more than 1,000 supporters. When added to money from trusts and public funding bodies, this was enough to purchase the book and bring it to the Museum in Haworth in January 2020.
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Interestingly, the First Commonplace Book of Robert Burns that is going on sale this year was originally sold at Sotheby’s in 1879. At that time, it was purchased for £10, later being sold to William Law in 1891.
The Honresfield Library will go up for sale across three separate auctions, with the first auction open for bidding from 2–13 July 2021. The public will get the chance to view the library with exhibitions of highlights to take place in London, Edinburgh, and New York.